23 Nov Blog: An angry Dutchman (white)
White Dutch people have recently entered the second stage of grief over losing their colonial innocence: anger, says Paul Bijl. For decades they thought that racist injustice, slavery, colonialism and mass killings were more characteristics of the Germans, Americans, British and French. Since decolonization, therefore, the Dutch have remained in the first of the five stage of grief proposed by the Swiss-American psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, namely denial.
Dutch postcolonial innocence
Throughout the twentieth century, the Dutch have time and again rediscovered that they had a colonial past which was pretty bloody, but each time they responded by claiming that they never knew and that somebody—the government, historians, veterans, the media or Indo-Europeans—must have hidden this from them. In recent years, however, pressure has been mounting, with the result that this show of innocence has proven less and less tenable.
From denial to anger
Groups and activists have pointed out the awkward affinities between slavery, contemporary racism and the Dutch tradition of Black Peter as well as the mass killings of Indonesian civilians in several villages in the late 1940s. Less and less able to keep up their eternal surprise (“OMG, did we do that? Who hid this from us?”), the Dutch have now turned to anger. Every year I teach a class at the University of Amsterdam on Black Peter. For many years, the majority of my fifty, mostly white, 18-year-old students held that nothing needed to be done about this figure. This year, however, things were different. They gnashed their teeth and rolled their eyes, but said: alright, if we MUST. An angry, reluctant grudge was also palpable in the legally enforced apologies issued by the Dutch state to the widows of the Javanese village of Rawagede. Apologies were only issued for these killings, while the prime minister held that this was not a change of policy.
Activism works: What’s next?
For now, one conclusion can be drawn: activism works and critics like Quinsy Gario and Jeffry Pondaag are truly helping the Dutch to move on. The hardest part for the Dutch will be to incorporate these histories into their rosy self-image of valiant fighters for sovereignty against the Spanish in their “Golden Age” and their victimhood under the National-Socialist occupation in the 1940s. Oh, and of course their beloved invention of tolerance, gay marriage and liberal drug laws. As these histories of slavery and colonialism are expelled and no longer seen as parts of national history, they could be placed in a separate compartment. The question is: what will come next? According Kübler-Ross we can expect bargaining (“We dug up the Borobudur, didn’t we?”), depression (“What will our gravestones say? No better than a Yankee or a Kraut?”) and, finally, acceptance— and hopefully some German-style self-critical awareness (“Wir haben es doch gewusst”: “We knew all along.”).